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It's A Complicated Relationship Between Prosecutors, Police


We're going to hear more now about the relationship between prosecutors and police. They obviously work closely together. So what happens when a prosecutor has to weigh bringing charges against police officers, as we've seen in New York and Ferguson? NPR's Martin Kaste explores that question.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Here's the problem. Prosecutors are usually the ones deciding whether officers are indicted. Either they bring the charges, or they nudge a grand jury to do so. But prosecutors also work with the police every day. Rachel Barkow is a professor at NYU Law, and she says at the very least, this can look like a conflict.

RACHEL BARKOW: The issue that screams out here is that we have a double standard. And we're not applying that in every case. And I think that reasonably bothers people.

KASTE: After all, prosecutors need the police on their side. They rely on the police to investigate cases and testify at trials.

DAN RICHMAN: I do think that working with police officers, relying on them regularly for them to be your connection to the outside world and your source of cases and evidence, is going to affect how you judge interactions.

KASTE: Dan Richman used to be a federal prosecutor in New York. Now he teaches at Columbia Law. He says prosecutors also can't help but relate to officers on a personal level, especially because they're often the ones sending the cops into harm's way.

RICHMAN: I don't think there's any prosecutor who doesn't think hard about the times that they've filled out the search warrants, said goodbye to the police officers and know that they're going through the door next, and you're sitting in your office.

KASTE: But Richman says people can overestimate just how close this relationship really is.

RICHMAN: One of the things about the United States is that, you know, prosecutors are elected for the most part. Police departments are generally responsible to the mayor or county executive. And there will regularly be disjunctions between what the police want or who the police are and what a prosecutor's up to.

KASTE: And then, there's a more practical legal consideration. In our system, it's hard to make a case against an officer for use of force. Officers tend to get the benefit of the doubt. The Supreme Court says if they have a reasonable feel of harm, deadly force is justified. Still, even if a prosecutor thinks he can't make the case, why not just bring charges? That's certainly what the protesters have been asking for in New York and Ferguson. Just give us an indictment. Give us a trial. At NYU Law, Rachel Barkow is not sure that's the way things should go.

BARKOW: I don't think we want to live in a system where we just assume that the indictment stage is one that you bypass.

KASTE: Instead of just going after individual officers to satisfy the public in high-profile cases, she says we should look at broader reforms. For instance, more use of outside prosecutors or maybe have the state attorneys general step in more when local cops are under suspicion. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.